PHILADELPHIA -- When Germantown was more like country than city, it was the center of a bountiful universe for a quirky character named Edwin C. Jellett.
Not much is known beyond this: He lived in the late 19th- and early 20th century on Herman Street, with his mother, Sarah; he was public-spirited and utterly plant-crazy; and he spent untold hours exploring the gardens, woods, fields and valleys of his landscape-rich neighborhood and beyond, recording all he saw with exhaustive precision.
"He's like a Germantown Thoreau," says horticulturist Nicole Juday, who stumbled across one of Jellett's bound scrapbooks at the Germantown Historical Society and found herself fascinated by his unusual collection of postcards, newspaper clippings, poems, botanical illustrations and photos.
In the months since her discovery, Ms. Juday and two friends -- Mark Sellers, board president of the Awbury Arboretum in Germantown, and board member Claudia Levy, a landscape architect -- have immersed themselves in Jellett's work, which reflects Germantown's role as a onetime horticultural mecca and has surprising and potentially significant resonance in 2012.
Mr. Sellers sets it up: What if Awbury were able to identify, propagate and sell the history-rich plants of old Germantown that Jellett chronicled, in much the same way that Bartram's Garden does with the Franklinia tree and other discoveries of Philadelphia's noted 18th-century botanist, John Bartram?
"It's so cool. We could have a horticultural identity as the home of the heritage plants of Germantown," says Mr. Sellers. He lives with his wife in one of a cluster of homes that surround the 55-acre arboretum, which runs along both sides of Washington Lane, between Chew and Ardleigh streets.
This would be a scholarly pursuit, for sure. Ms. Levy notes Jellett's "multilayered approach to nature. It has a lot of meanings for him, not just horticulture. It gives him connectiveness to the world," she says.
But the thrust of a "heritage plants" campaign -- still in the idea stage -- would also be practical. "It could help make Awbury's landscape legible to visitors" and, Mr. Sellers adds -- jokingly -- "be a crass commercial venture" they could call the "Flora of Germantown."
Public gardens everywhere, of necessity, are embracing "commercial ventures." Says Ms. Levy: "It's not crass. It's connecting our own gardens to the story of Germantown."
That connection could help Awbury differentiate itself from the many other historic homes and gardens in the Philadelphia region and in Germantown, which Jellett called "a naturalist's retreat." It's an objective that seems perennially elusive at this Quaker estate that became an arboretum in 1916.
Awbury's identity issues stem in part from the nature of the landscape, Ms. Levy explains. It's subtle -- no formal rose beds to wow the crowds, for example.
But, as Awbury's champions will tell you, this is a place you grow to love. It has substance and staying power, and a quiet beauty that invites you to experience the catbird calls, the massive river birch and the squish of overripe persimmons underfoot.
On a recent warm day, Ms. Levy, Mr. Sellers and Ms. Juday set off in the arboretum to experience those things -- and to look for the plants that so entranced Jellett a century ago. Not all would be candidates for propagation and sale.
They quickly come upon a hardy orange tree (Poncirus trifoliata), introduced to the United States from China about 1850. What a sensation it must have caused in the grand and not-so-grand gardens of Germantown, with its smooth green stems, murderous thorns and bitter yellow fruits that litter the lawn -- and, as we now know, turn into annoying seedlings.
Just beyond is a giant weeping European beech with low-lying limbs as thick as a stallion's neck. These trees can live for two centuries! Mr. Sellers muses aloud about the generations of children that have played in its shade.
The group finds wild strawberry (Potentilla indica) in the lawn, not a particularly desirable place for it; hellebores, a trendy plant today; and Magnolia soulangiana, saucer magnolia, which was a must-have when it arrived in the States in the 1830s. It is still beloved.
Ferns fill the Awbury woodland and, Ms. Juday says, they should figure prominently in the "Flora of Germantown" initiative. In his writings, Jellett notes both common and botanical names for flowering, royal, king, interrupted, cinnamon and walking varieties, among others.
He loved Germantown's woods, but played no favorites. "So I have come to believe the most enjoyable wood is always the wood we are in at the time we are in it," he writes.
There are none of Jellett's small yellow violets to be found, although Ms. Juday has seen them in the Wissahickon in Philadelphia's Fairmount Park. The Wissahickon is also where he found an abundance of trailing arbutus -- and so did others, who took carts of it home for decorations. "It would be amazing to think of reintroducing this beautiful, fragrant wildflower," says Ms. Juday, a member of Awbury's landscape committee.
Alex Bartlett, archivist for the Germantown Historical Society, loves the "heritage plants" idea, and suggests that Jellett would have been thrilled to know his writings -- among them, "A Flora of Germantown, With Notes of Nature and Nature Lovers" (1901) and "Germantown Gardens and Gardeners" (1903) -- were an inspiration.
In his day, Jellett was also a player outside of Germantown's horticulture circles. He served as president of the historical society and the Germantown and Chestnut Hill Improvement Association, and was active in the Mermaid Club, a literary group.
But it was in the flora of Germantown that he found his calling -- no surprise, Mr. Bartlett says, given the neighborhood's abundance of beautiful gardens, plant nurseries and societies.
Ms. Levy, for one, thinks Jellett's calling bordered on obsession. But here's the upside: He enjoyed an intimate connection to the living world that is too rare in 2012. "What he writes is coming out of a pretechnical, prescientific relationship with nature. Now nature is something Ph.Ds measure," she says.
Perhaps it's as Ms. Juday says. "Jellett is one of those people who has a relationship with nature" -- like art or music -- "the way others have relationships with people. I know people like that."